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In its 38 years of existence, the USA TODAY Editorial Board has never endorsed a candidate for president. The nonpartisan board hasn’t recommended a nominee. Until now.
"We don't do this eagerly," said editorial page editor Bill Sternberg. "We hope we don't have to do it again, but it seems like one of those break-glass moments where there's a clear and present danger and there's a clear choice."
USA TODAY Editorial Board: Elect Joe Biden. Reject Donald Trump.
Endorsements, all editorials, aren't meant to lecture. They're meant to put forth a well-considered viewpoint, grounded in the facts, to spur conversation. The closest the board ever came to an endorsement was in 2016, when it urged voters to reject Donald Trump, but did not endorse any other candidate.
As editor-in-chief, I oversee the newsroom, but I do not sit on the Editorial Board. News and editorial are separate groups, working independently of each other. News reporters provide facts, background and context. Editorial Board members offer all that, but also their educated opinions and thought leadership. The two groups do not have any influence over each other.
Opposing View by Vice President Pence: Reelect President Trump to renew America’s promise
The nonpartisan USA TODAY Editorial Board is known for being balanced in its views. That doesn’t mean the editors avoid sharp opinions, it means they offer a variety of viewpoints, including today’s Opposing View by Vice President Mike Pence. Nonpartisan means the board has no formal or informal connections to either the Republican or Democratic parties. Traditionally, it has supported policies put forth by both parties.
Sternberg said the board hasn’t endorsed in the past because major parties have put up qualified candidates with political differences.
That’s not so this year, the endorsement says: “If this were a choice between two capable major party nominees who happened to have opposing ideas, we wouldn’t choose sides. Different voters have different concerns. But this is not a normal election, and these are not normal times. This year, character, competence and credibility are on the ballot. Given Trump’s refusal to guarantee a peaceful transfer of power if he loses, so, too, is the future of America's democracy.”
Sternberg said he also considered the core values of the board: "Honesty, accountability, civil discourse, common sense, common-ground solutions to the nation's problems, opposition to racism, steadfast support for the First Amendment. These aren't partisan values. They shouldn't be partisan values. But in each case, Donald Trump has trampled on those values, and Joe Biden would respect those values."
The 10-member Editorial Board includes conservatives, liberals and centrists. Eileen Rivers served in military intelligence in Kuwait. Thuan Le Elston came to America as a child refugee of the Vietnam War. David Mastio moved to Washington in 1994 to be part of the Republican Revolution. Sternberg was the longtime USA TODAY Washington editor before moving to the opinion department in 2005.
Mastio, the deputy opinion editor, said he hopes people consider the board's centrist, nonpartisan track record as they read today's endorsement.
"We're not an ideological Editorial Board out to impose our views on other people," he said. "We're saying this is a national emergency. This is a president like no other who has been uniquely awful, both personally and professionally. And we need to do something about it."
Today’s Opposing View by Pence focuses on, among other things, the economy under the Trump administration, tax cuts, trade reform and the president’s support for the military and law enforcement.
“There is no doubt that 2020 has been a time of unprecedented challenges,” he wrote. “Thankfully, we have a president with the toughness, energy and resolve to ensure America’s best days still lie ahead.”
Rivers said it’s good to challenge the thinking of the Editorial Board and is proud of our history of an “Opposing View.”
"That makes the discussion richer,” she said. “People look to the editorial page to figure out maybe not what their perspective should be, but to get an idea of other intelligent perspectives.
"Maybe their view will be more aligned with our Opposing View, and that's OK."
Ultimately, Rivers hopes the endorsement helps people think beyond themselves.
"Ask yourself," she said, "Are you better off than you were four years ago? And if the answer to that for you is yes, then think about the people for whom that is no and think about how this president has put us in that situation."
And the board wants to make this clear: Just because they endorse Biden now, that will have no bearing on how they cover him moving forward.
“We’ll continue to question him and to challenge him,” Elston said. “It’s what is good for the country that is at stake, not Biden.”
Mastio, a forceful conservative voice on the board, puts it more plainly: "It makes me ill to endorse a Democrat. And I can guarantee you that on Day One, I will be among Biden's biggest critics."
The board vigorously debates issues, and only takes a new position, or changes an existing position, when at least eight of the 10 agree. (For the endorsement, the vote was unanimous.)
Mastio said this means there's never an opinion that hasn't been examined skeptically from the other side and that the weakest arguments are discarded: "Having people who disagree as a core part of our Editorial Board, it makes the editorials that result stronger and more reality-based."
It also means that the opinion editors look for a diversity of columns to publish on current events. The nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court is a good example. In the past few weeks, that includes a column urging people not to attack Judge Barrett’s religious beliefs and Barrett’s former students writing that the nation could not ask for a more qualified candidate. Conversely, another writer argued that if Barrett is confirmed on the court, the Affordable Care Act will be ruled unconstitutional, and yet another wrote that Republicans are using a deeply unfair process to confirm Barrett.
There are some who say that editorial boards are outdated, and that media organizations should not offer opinions as readers are confused between editorial pages and straight news. Across the USA TODAY Network, local newspapers have made their own decisions about whether to endorse or not, at all levels of elections.
Sternberg defends the value of a diverse, nonpartisan board.
"People see things on the internet, where they don't know what or who to believe, where it's coming from or the credibility," Sternberg said. "A newspaper editorial board properly executed can be a voice of authority, of fact-based information, a voice without a partisan ax to grind or without ulterior motives other than what's best for the citizenry and what's best for the country."
Nicole Carroll is the editor-in-chief of USA TODAY. Reach her at EIC@usatoday.com or follow her on Twitter here. Thank you for supporting our journalism. You can subscribe to our print edition, ad-free experience or electronic newspaper replica here.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Backstory: USA TODAY Editorial Board endorsed Joe Biden. Here's why.